Fiction

2015

‘The Petals Abide’ in Clarkesworld Magazine. Petals fall from Twoseret’s mouth, prophetic. They predict her life, death, loss. But they may prove fallible after all when an assassin is sent to her as a gift. 6,200 words.

‘And the Burned Moths Remain’ on Tor.com. Long ago Jingfei sold the world of her birth, Tiansong, to the Hegemony. Kept as a political prisoner, she bides her eternal sentence in the company of her countless bodies. An envoy arrives with an offer: a bargain to undo history and redeem Jingfei’s name. 6,100 words.

2014

Scale-Bright, a novella from Immersion Press. Shortlisted for the British SF Association Award.

‘Chrysalises’ in Dangerous Games, edited by Jonathan Oliver (Solaris Books).

‘The Governess and We’ in Steampunk World, edited by Sarah Hans (Alliteration Ink).

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medeadeath

Fate: Unlimited Blade Works – 17

This is a fantastic episode, especially if you’ve watched the wretched misery that was the 2010 movie by Studio Deen. The usual obvious pluses like higher budget, just better-looking all around aside, Urobuchi made many directing decisions that gave Rin a lot more front-and-center role, a lot more agency, and not least: a lot more of her beating the snotting out of Caster.

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Some books you could stand to read: THE CARHULLAN ARMY, THE RACE

Following its union with the United States and a series of disastrous foreign wars, Britain is in the grip of a severe crisis; the country is now under the control of The Authority.

But up in the far north of Cumbria, Jackie and a group of fellow rebel women have escaped The Authority’s repressive regime and formed their own militia. Sister, brought to breaking point by the restrictions imposed on her own life, decides to join them. Though her journey is frightening and dangerous, she believes her struggle will soon be over. But Jackie’s single-minded vision for the army means that Sister must decide all over again what freedom is, and whether she is willing to fight for it.

The Carhullan Army (US title, absurdly, Daughters of the North) is a near-future dystopia, taking on a pretty familiar – even dated – idea: in the future, things become Very Bad Indeed and women are treated as dehumanized incubators. It’s compared to The Handmaid’s Tale because of course, though I’d argue the resemblance is remote; the core premise is, as I said, pretty dated and has been done to death by feminist SF of the 80-90’s. In that regard it doesn’t do anything new, the central idea is antique if anything, but the execution is something else. Hall is a stunning writer; the near-future dystopia she creates is starkly real, intimately detailed, wonderfully researched from landscape to the day-to-day details of livestock rearing (and she makes it interesting).

She did not make monsters of us. She simply gave us the power to remake ourselves into those inviolable creatures the God of Equality had intended us to be. We knew she was deconstructing the old disabled versions of our sex, and that her ruthlessness was adopted because those constructs were built to endure. She broke down the walls that had kept us contained. There was a fresh red field on the other side, and in its rich soil were growing all the flowers of war that history had never let us gather. It was beautiful to walk in. As beautiful as the fells that autumn.

The other deeply compelling part is how she pulls off writing this charismatic, yet fanatically violent leader – Jackie is a fully realized character even if we never get into her head (or perhaps especially because we don’t). The training she puts Sister and other women at Carhullan through to forge them into soldiers isn’t given page after page of tedious ‘grittiness’, but it’s done quickly and efficiently: brutally written.

Set in a future Great Britain scarred by fracking and ecological collapse, The Race is the first full-length novel from Nina Allan, winner of the 2014 BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction (Spin, TTA Press), and the prestigious Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for Best Translated Work (Complications/The Silver Wind, Editions Tristram).

The Race opens in the coastal town of Sapphire, dominated by the illegal sport of smartdog racing: greyhounds genetically modified with human DNA. For Jenna, the latest Cup meet bears a significance far beyond the simple hunger for victory. Christy’s life is dominated by fear of her brother, a man she knows capable of monstrous acts and suspects of hiding even darker ones. Desperate to learn the truth she contacts Alex, a stranger she knows only by name. Together they must face their demons, wherever that may lead. Raised at the Croft, a secret government programme focussing on smartdogs, Maree has to undertake a journey through shipping lanes haunted by the enigmatic and dangerous Atlantic whale. What she discovers en route will change her world forever. 

The story of four damaged people whose lives are inextricably linked, The Race is a novel of tender nuances, brutality, insight and great ambition, a narrative that lays bare the fears and joys of being human, and, ultimately, offers hope to us all.

The Race has only been on one award shortlist so far (the BSFA, which – up against Ancillary Sword – it never had a chance, unfortunately: not that Ancillary Sword doesn’t deserve the win of course, but The Race is a very unique novel as well) but IMO it deserves to be on more. I’ve read two long things by Nina Allan so far, this and her novella Spin, and have enjoyed both – though The Race more so than Spin.

The Race does something remarkable: I don’t typically have much interest in dog-racing, but like Hall, Allan gets me to pay attention to and take interest in a subject matter I don’t usually look into, which goes a long way in measuring an author’s ability. It’s also deliriously metatextual, for reasons that I don’t want to spoil for other readers. Like Spin and The Carhullan Army, it normatizes women’s sexuality in a powerful, raw way; it handles coming of age, trauma, and complex relationships in a way that feels immediate, real, breathing.

That’s Bal-Bal-Kun to *you*

Yui Kusanagi, is the daughter of a Shinto shrine. She discovers a mysterious sword, which transports her to a different world where she meets the Greek god Zeus. He invites her to attend a school in a separate world that he created. Zeus intends to teach the meaning of love to the various young divine beings who also attend the school, in an attempt to reverse the weakening bond between humans and the gods.

Kamigami no Asobi is an absurd manga and demands an image dump. I’m pretty positive it’s a piss-take, honestly. The experience of reading it felt like pouring dead insects down my skin.

L to R: Hades, Apollo, Loki, Baldr, Thoth, and Anubis.

Bal-Bal-Kun. Also known as Bella Swan, on account of falling over constantly.

‘From the Greek side, they also sent my uncle, Hades and Dionysus, also called Dee-Dee.’

‘This is a unicorn. A fierce, extremely self-respecting unicorn.’

Yep, definitely a piss-take.

eyeliners

Eyeliner basics: gel, pencil, liquid, smudge, smear, oh god I’m a panda

Eyeliner’s great. To some people mascara is the most crucial part of a look, but I personally go for eyeliner – it can do a whole lot to change how you look and emphasize your eyes, and if I’m in a rush eyeliner remains something I never skip (eyeshadow, sure; I even go without foundation sometimes). I love eyeliner. Call me an eyeliner enthusiast. If you wear nothing else on your face, eyeliner – along with lipstick – can make the biggest difference.

I also don’t subscribe to the idea that black eyeliner is too harsh for daytime looks, and I’d say most people around here agree with me: black eyeliner is the norm here, of various intensity, fanciness and thickness. While I wouldn’t draw my liner on an inch thick, I find brown just too subtle to properly emphasize eyes, though I imagine dark brown works nicely if you’re doing a ‘no makeup’ look.

What was intimidating and confusing when I started getting into makeup was, which kind of eyeliner? There are really quite a lot of types. My initial eyeliner adventures involved a lot of broken retractable pencils of terrible quality that tugged and pulled at my eyelids while dispensing muddy, grayish pigment instead of the advertised black. It was like trying to line my eyes with charcoal sticks. Otherwise it was liquid eyeliners with soft brush tips that smeared literally everywhere and got stuck in my eyelashes. Very attractive.

So let’s see if I can make eyeliner less intimidating and money-wasting for everyone else!

Finish? Type? Formula?

Liquid eyeliner is for my money the hardest sort to handle: you need a steady hand, a decent brush tip, and a lot of practice. But it’s also the most pigmented and most obviously black, and some liquid liners come with a shiny finish, giving you a ‘lacquered’ look. I prefer liquid liners with a firm tip rather than a soft brush – they let you best control the line’s direction and thickness while softer brushes are prone to smear stuff all over. One downside of liquid eyeliner pens is that they can dry out too soon, though I hear that storing it tip-down can help with that. Good liquid eyeliner should not flake off, smudge, or migrate to your under eye. I generally find them much longer-lasting than pencil or gel and, unless your eyelids are supremely oily, you usually don’t need a primer under a liquid liner.

I’ve sampled a lot, from the devilishly difficult (MAC Liquid Last – it has the rough consistency of tar and may be the most difficult formula on Earth to use, but hoo boy it’ll stay on all day) to the forgiving and easy. Even the most forgiving of liquid liners is still harder to use, though, than pencil or gel. Try: Clio Waterproof Pen Liner (not the Brush Liner), Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eye Liner, Kanebo KATE Super Sharp Liner.

eyeliners

Gel eyeliner: these usually come in a pot and needs a brush to apply. The extra fuss of needing a separate brush isn’t my favorite part about using gel liners (since it’s one more brush to clean), but gel liners are massively more forgiving than liquid. It’s also pretty useful as an eyeshadow base and smudging for smoky looks.

I slag off Clinique skincare but some of their makeup is pretty solid, and the Brush-On Cream Liner is one of them. Actually, it’s much better than the MAC Fluidline. Like a whole lot better, in every way, for a smaller price tag. MAC is $150.00/oz, Clinique is around $97.00/oz. Each pot of Fluidline gives you 0.1 oz of product; the Clinique gives you 0.17 oz of product. Usually having more product per purchase isn’t necessarily the best – price concerns aside – because gel liner in pots can dry out. My Fluidline did, despite storing it upside down, and while in theory you could revive the stuff with eye drops or a trip in the microwave, I’m not a big fan of either idea in practice.

cliniquepot

The Clinique liner, though, is famous for never drying out – I hear some people have kept theirs for three years plus and it’s still not dried up (whether it’s advisable to use a gel liner three years going on four is another concern entirely). Mine has retained its creamy consistency, pigmentation, and ease of application after about fourteen months. Good going. More importantly, if you want your eyeliner to be really black-black the Clinique is just more pigmented. It dries, well, true black whereas the MAC Fluidline in Blacktrack gets a bit gray. There are gel liners blacker than the Clinique, but its blackness gets pretty close to liquid liner. Recommended. The only pro MAC Fluidline has going for it is that it comes in a much bigger range of finishes and shades.

Otherwise, try these very cheap, nice options: Essence Gel Eyeliner, Kanebo KATE Gel Eye Liner, Zoeva Cream Eyeliner.

Pencil liners are the most foolproof format. It’s also my least favorite, mainly because I have never met a pencil liner that didn’t slide off my eyelids within the hour. Like, what even. I also have a hate-hate relationship with retractable pencil liners, since pretty much every single one I’ve used snaps off at the drop of a hat, isn’t creamy enough to apply without tugging, and doesn’t dispense enough pigmentation in one stroke, so if I must use a pencil it’s going to be a wooden one that needs sharpening. Bonus: compared ounce to ounce, retractable pencil liners are much more expensive – even taking into account that you’ll sharpen some product away on the wooden one.

I don’t really have a recommendation for pencil eyeliners. Sorry. That’s how badly I get along with them – I only use colorful pencil liners as part of a look, but black pencil liners to do my upper lashline are a no-no.

Primer. There’s a reason there’s a sample of the NARS Smudge Proof Eyeshadow Base in the picture, and not just because I mistook it for a deluxe sample of a NARS pencil liner (okay, it’s because I mistook it for that). I find that if you have even mildly oily eyelids (or hooded ones), you’re going to need some primer on to avoid the not-really-coveted panda look when wearing gel or pencil liner (if your eyelids are very oily, you’ll probably want a primer even for liquid liners). NARS Smudge Proof is my favorite, but it’s also pretty pricey and your eyelids may just not be as oily as mine, so it’s worth trying NYX HD Eye Shadow Base or Zoeva Eyeshadow Fix Matte. Don’t bother with MAC Prep & Prime, it’s just bad.

Tl;dr: Pencil eyeliners are the most beginner-friendly and forgiving to those whose hands aren’t the steadiest. Liquid is the trickiest, least forgiving, but generally the longest-lasting and most pigmented. Gel eyeliners are a nice middle ground and double as eyeshadow base.

Skincare for beginners: the basics

A few friends were asking Twitter for skincare recommendations the other day. Me being me, I thought hey, sounds like a great excuse to put together a beginner’s guide to skincare. Disclaimer: I’m not a dermatologist and I work on the assumption that most people have oily/combination or dry skin, but everyone’s skin is individual. What works for me might break you out in giant cystic messes; what breaks me out might turn your skin into literal gold.

Morning routine:

  1. Wash with water.
  2. Toner.
  3. Light moisturizer.
  4. Sunscreen.

Evening:

  1. Remove makeup or sunscreen.
  2. Cleanser.
  3. Toner (optional).
  4. Light moisturizer.
  5. Heavy night cream.

Some general tips.

  • Over-cleansing. A lot of people with oily skin try to compensate for it by cleansing too often, which results in dehydrated skin that produces even more sebum! If your foaming cleanser results in your skin feeling ‘squeaky clean’, that’s a sign it’s drying you out.
  • Over-exfoliating. Similar to over-cleansing,you can dry out your skin this way which results in it producing more oil, thus defeating the purpose. I don’t, personally, find physical exfoliants (microbeads, apricot scrubs, whatever) very effective, but your mileage and all that. Depending on how harsh the exfoliant is, two-three times a week more than suffice. You mightn’t want to do it every day.
  • Sunscreen. Unless you live in underground, put that stuff on, for real, every day. Your motivation? Prevention of early signs of age and prevention of, well, skin cancer.
  • Under-moisturizing. Same drill: if you have oily skin, it may be due to your skin being dehydrated and over-producing sebum to compensate. The solution is to moisturize more, not less. Don’t be scared of oil-based skincare.
  • Pore tightening. Pretty much nothing will shrink the size of your pores, sorry. (I sure have tried!) If your pores are large due to acne, AHA/BHA treatments can unclog your pores and they’ll appear smaller. Otherwise, if pores bother you, use a silicone primer to fill/blur them.

Cleansers: The main factor is the pH value, ideally no higher than 5.5. If it doesn’t come labeled, look it up online. Have a look at this primer on Why the pH of your Cleanser Matters. Otherwise, I’d recommend oil-based or cream cleansers for those with dry skin, foaming cleansers for oily/combination (many foaming cleansers score way too high on the pH strip, but not all!). Try: Hada Labo Tamagohada, Cetaphil, Clinique Liquid Facial Soap.

Don’t use bar soap, seriously.

Treatments: If you have specific skin concerns like acne, hyperpigmentation, and so on, I won’t be covering treatments for those since the things that really work on them tend to be specialized: you need chemical exfoliants and retinoids, and those can be pretty intimidating to sort through.

One exception? Clay masks. Clay masks are great at dealing with breakouts in my experience, and not only are they much less scary than active treatments, they are cheaper and more widely available. Some picks: Queen Helene’s Mint Julep Masque, Boots Botanics Shine Away Ionic Clay Mask, Origins Active Charcoal Mask. Put on, let dry for 10-20 minutes, wash off before proceeding with cleansing as usual. Do this whenever you’ve got a breakout and it’s very likely to help calm things down. Note that clay masks will dry your face out, so moisturize well afterward!

Toners: I don’t think anyone agrees on whether toners are necessary. Your average run-of-the-mill toner doesn’t do much other than mild cleansing. My take on it is that toners are, by and large, optional. It can remove stuff your cleanser didn’t get rid off. I like toners for mornings, when I don’t user a cleanser but want something quick and refreshing. I’ve used many, many toners from drugstore to the highest end (thanks, samples) and found them all to be equally indifferent. It’s down to finding out what you are sensitive/allergic to, and avoiding toners with those: alcohol is present in many toners. It’s Paula Begoun’s pet hate. Personally I’m fine with alcohol, but some people evidently aren’t. You can also use plain witch hazel or rosewater for toner. Otherwise, I like Etude House Wonderpore and Dr. Wu Intensive Renewal Toner with Mandelic Acid, both of which are pH-balancing.

Moisturizers: This isn’t an official classification, but I personally separate moisturizing products into three kinds. (Technically we are supposed to think of emollients, humectants and occlusives, but it’s a rabbit hole and skincare salespeople will probably not really… understand if you walk up to them asking for an occlusive.)

  1. Day moisturizer.
  2. Night moisturizer.
  3. Occlusive.

Day moisturizers are light gels or watery lotions. It should go under your makeup or sunscreen without causing your foundation to slide off or leaving you a greasy mess. Try: Hada Labo Gokujyun Milk, Sulwhasoo Essential Balancing Water. (I’ve used Clinique Dramatically Different Moisturizing Gel. It sat on top of my skin without absorbing, pilled up, and didn’t hydrate any better than a spray of water. Most Clinique skincare is troublingly mediocre, there’s much better stuff for much cheaper.)

Night moisturizers are thicker creams, richer, and oilier. Try: Nivea Cream, Sisley Ecological Compound.

Occlusives. These lock in the hydration from your prior skincare steps. Vaseline serves very well: smear it on top of your moisturizer before you go to bed. Your skin doesn’t like Vaseline? There’s medical-grade lanolin or Aquaphor. Otherwise, try Laneige Water Sleeping Pack EX or Too Cool for School Pumpkin Sleeping Pack.

Mineral oil, another ingredient about which there’s much scare-mongering, is present in all kinds of skincare products – cleansing oil, cleansing balm, night moisturizers – but it’s noncomedogenic and less likely to cause issues than coconut, olive or argan oil. Skin and Tonics offers a better explanation.

There’s all kinds of trash talk about mineral oil floating around, but the truth is, mineral oil is a safe, fantastic skin care ingredient, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to support this. Mineral oil is actually an amazing cleansing ingredient, especially for those who are prone to blackheads. Mineral oil molecules are too large to enter pores, so it’s noncomedogenic, and massaging into the skin as a cleansing agent on a daily basis actually helps dislodge stubborn blackheads. Additionally, it provides emollient moisturizing benefits, even when used as a wash-off product. I’m a fan!

If you’re interested in reading more about the efficacy of mineral oil, check out this spectacularly detailed study from the International Journal of Cosmetic Science: A Review on the Extensive Skin Benefits of Mineral Oil (Rawlings, A. V. and Lombard, K. J.)

Yep. So while you do get shortchanged buying high-end products that include mineral oil (it’s a cheaper oil), it’s probably not going to give you literal face tumors or something. It’s occlusive and great for dry skin.

If you have dehydrated skin and/or winter is harsh and windy where you are (like, say, Hong Kong) I do recommend layering at least two kinds of moisturizers at night, with some minutes between them to wait for one to dry before you add another.

Sunscreen: The short version? Don’t bother with western sunscreens.

The long version? I’ve tried a lot of western sunscreens and found them to be mediocre to outright bad: greasy, messy, low SPF, lacking in broad-spectrum protection. Yes, even Paula’s Choice was like that for me. Alpha-H Daily Essential Moisturiser SPF30 is terrible, thick, and leaves my face an oily mess.

Shiseido sunscreens (including their sub-brands, like Anessa) are categorically good. So’s Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Essence and Hada Labo UV Creamy Gel. My favorite right now is The Face Shop Sebum Control Moisture Sun SPF 40. If Asian sunscreens aren’t easily accessible to you, it’s worth getting it online (they are pretty gentle to the wallet).

Whew, that got longer than I thought. I’ll probably cover active treatments some other time, plus oil cleansing, which IMO is really great, effective, gentle and friendly to skin.